The nation's top dog of war is frisky again.
Donald Rumsfeld has returned to high visibility after a couple of months
in the media doghouse following revelations about torture at the Abu Ghraib
prison now openly romancing the journalistic pack with his inimitable style
of tough love as he growls and romps across TV screens.
For three years, the élan of Rumsfeld's media stardom has been welded
to fear and killing. The civilian boss at the Pentagon made little impression
on the nation until 9/11 but soon afterwards, CNN was hailing him as
"a virtual rock star." While he briefed reporters about the bombing
of Afghanistan in autumn 2001, there was a rush among reporters and pundits
who conflated his ability to oversee air-war carnage with new status as some
kind of hunk.
Three decades after President Richard Nixon pursued a "madman" strategy
in an attempt to intimidate North Vietnam's leaders, more than a few liberal
pundits joined in the acclaim for Rumsfeld as someone capable of pinning the
violence meter. During a CNBC appearance (Oct. 13, 2001), Thomas Friedman said:
"I was a critic of Rumsfeld before, but there's one thing ... that I do
like about Rumsfeld. He's just a little bit crazy, OK? He's just a little bit
crazy, and in this kind of war, they always count on being able to out-crazy
us, and I'm glad we got some guy on our bench that's our quarterback
who's just a little bit crazy, not totally, but you never know what that guy's
going to do, and I say that's my guy."
And Ahmad Chalabi was Rumsfeld's guy. Relentlessly promoted by the Pentagon
chief and top aides, the slick Iraqi exile was widely understood to be an accomplished
liar. But that didn't impede New York Times reporter Judith Miller and
a team of colleagues as they put out front-page prewar stories about Iraqi weapons
of mass destruction, with Chalabi serving as the key unnamed source.
The Times wasn't alone. Many reporters on mainstream payrolls took
the nod from Rumsfeld, eagerly succumbing to the Chalabi scam. And some avowedly
independent journalists did likewise. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, ended
up dedicating his book about the Iraq invasion to Chalabi and a few others
calling them "comrades in a just struggle and friends for life."
When Rumsfeld comes in for harsh media criticism, he takes a licking and keeps
on ticking ... like a time bomb. Since early 2001, New York Times columnist
Maureen Dowd has referred to him as "Rummy" with escalating frequency
(in more than 40 columns last year), and some other pundits have also been scathing
at times. Yet the prevailing media narrative has been compatible with the Rumsfeld
"new American century" agenda: Boys will be boys, Rumsfeld will be
Rummy, war will be bloody, and the Pentagon media machine will keep spinning
while the defense secretary leads the way.
Rumsfeld was back in media action for a long interview Aug. 17 on
the PBS "NewsHour" with host Jim Lehrer. Mostly, Rumsfeld spun the
fabric of public relations. Along the way, he talked about how to get
"the best intelligence" and "good all-source analysis" without
Minutes later, Lehrer got around to asking whether Pentagon analysts
doing "lessons-learned studies" on Iraq had determined "why the
intelligence turned out to be so wrong about weapons of mass
Rumsfeld: "Ooh, no, that wasn't what we did, no. The Central
Intelligence Agency did that."
Lehrer: "Right. So you didn't that was not part of your lessons
Rumsfeld: "No. We're not in that business."
The evasive reply came from the Pentagon honcho who'd flatly
declared before the Iraq invasion that the U.S. government knew where
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were located.
But without a word of followup Lehrer changed the subject,
moving on to a matter of tactical foresight. "What about the intensity
the insurgency after major combat," he asked, "was that an intelligence
failure within the Pentagon or not?"
Rumsfeld's response was predictable and easy ("things are always different
than one anticipates ... a war plan doesn't ever outlive the first contact with
the enemy..."). In an interview that involved several thousand words and
focused largely on intelligence, Lehrer permanently dropped the WMD question
as soon as Rumsfeld blew it off.
Major U.S. news outlets are hardly inclined to be up in arms about Rumsfeld's
record of prewar deception when they remain so dainty about critiquing their
own. What passes for soul-searching at the New York Times and the Washington
Post is much more like autoeroticism than self-flagellation. No wonder Rumsfeld
the media star is back.